Strom Thurmond, Carrie Butler, and Us
December 17, 2003
I have read much of the discussions concerning Strom Thurmond and the coming forth of his daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. The responses are interesting, not so much for what they illuminate about the man or his daughter, but for what they reveal about us.
First the facts. Essie Mae Washington-Williams was brought into the world as the illegitimate daughter of 22-year-old Strom Thurmond and young 16-year-old, Carrie Butler. Strom was the son of a prominent family. Carrie was the young, black maid who worked in his parentsí home.
What we donít know is the nature of the relationship. The bottom line is that we do not know the answer to that question.
It should not matter whether Carrie was black or not. Stromís shame was in the fact that Essie Mae was illegitimate Ė not that he got a black girl pregnant. He should have been ashamed that he got any girl pregnant. That is not to say that there did not exist times in our nationís past when black girls were simply used and cast off by the white men who had power over them. Nor am I denying that there was most likely a remaining strain of that thought during the time of Stromís youth.
The race issue sidetracks us. To many people today it doesnít seem to matter that Strom helped set back the life of a young 16-year-old girl. Hey, kids will be kids and if they are in love and meet the age of consent (which was the case), why not let them express their sexual freedom. What matters to these people is that she was a black 16-year-old girl. It is inconceivable to them that Strom and Carrie might have been attracted to each other and in the flame of passion they made a mistake. Why not? Well, it has to be because she was black and he was white, right?
Again, we do not know if it was Strom exercising his power or if it was just plain old lust for each other. It points the finger back at us to ask why we would think one way or the other. Are some of us bitter people who, ashamed of some of the past problems we have learned about in our culture, want to ignore those stains on the past? We think of the possibilities that here was this man in the midst of such a culture who found himself attracted to this maiden who was, in that culture, a "forbidden fruit." There is no doubt that scenario played itself out during those days. However, we do not know if that was the case with Strom and Carrie.
Are some of us bitter people who, unable to move on to the idea that many of those past problems in our culture have improved, want to continue to use this case to press forward our ideas that racism is always within us? At least always within those who are "in power?" We think of the possibilities that here was this man in the midst of a time of segregation who used his position as a favored son to take advantage of an unwilling black girl who had no defense. Certainly, that type of scene could be found to exist during that era. However, we do not know if that was the case with Strom and Carrie.
This brings us once again to the common denominator: Strom and Carrie had an illicit relationship. Unfortunately for our culture today, that is not enough in itself to bring shame upon the memory of the man. It also makes me pause and think of what todayís headlines would read had Carrie acted according to the prevailing wisdom of today. Most likely, we would not be reading the headlines because there would be no Essie Mae.
To Thurmondís credit, he took care of his daughter. I realize that many do not believe he did as much as he should have. However, much of that response comes from todayís notions of how illegitimacy is accepted. There is no doubt in my mind that Thurmond would have taken the same approach had Carrie Butler been a young, white maid in his familyís home. Perhaps he was ashamed that his daughter was biracial. However, from reading the statements of Essie Mae and other people who knew Thurmond well, it is likely that he was more ashamed that his daughter was not his by marriage.
We can only look at the past through the lenses of today. They are clouded as we project aspects of our own culture on the people of that day. In the end, we all attempt to make our points and advance our cause by creating the story that supports our agenda. The one reality we have is Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Through this whole ordeal she rises above the fray as the one person with honor and dignity. She offers no explanation. She simply informs us of the history. She cannot tell us of the intents of two young people. She tells us of the actions they took for her.
She is the reminder that actions have consequences. Her story shows us that while things change slowly, they can change. Finally, she puts her focus on today. Regardless of the flaws or strengths of the character of Strom Thurmond, Essie Mae has made her own mark and moved beyond the past. She has not denied the past nor has she allowed it to define her. It is an example that we should follow.